What does it mean when John gives Mary flowers?
For more than a dozen years, I taught an introductory literature course to 60 or so first-year undergraduates, 80% of whom were young women--a number of whom would typically report being interested in questions of love and romance. Every year in the first class I described the following scenario and asked the class what word they would use to describe this young man’s actions.
What is the verb for when a man pursues a woman?
As I presented this hypothetical heterosexual scenario, I could feel Judith Butler and the gender police breathing down my neck, but bear with me. So what do we call what John is doing? Over the years I noticed a shifting in the tenor of the answers. The typical mid-90s answer was that he “was cruising,” “on the make,” “hitting on her” and, cutting to the chase, “trying to get laid.” At the millennium the answers became strident: “he’s a sexual predator,” and “it’s patriarchal oppression” and “hegemonic domination.” In more recent years the pendulum swung back slightly and it was typical to hear reported that it’s not about him but them: “they are friends with benefits” or “they’re dating” or “hooking up.”
Without "wooing" and "courtship" is romance dead?
As I called the room to order, I reminded my students of what they already knew: that the expressions they had given me did not include the correct verb for the scenario I had described. When pressed, someone would eventually come up with the proper expression: “to court.” Eliciting the older and much more English verb “to woo,” even among students who claimed to have read Romeo and Juliet where the lexeme is used a half dozen times, was a much greater challenge. I eventually asked my students when they had last used the expressions “to court” or “to woo” in conversation. The point of my questions was to provoke philological reflection on the relationship between language and culture using an example that I knew mattered to a lot of them. What does it mean that there are no current, earnest words for courtship? Does this gap in the vernacular prove that romance is no longer part of our daily culture? The number of advertisements I see for dating and match-making companies and web sites tell me that there is a void in the culture which consumer capitalism has been moving rapidly and vigorously to fill.
"Making love" before 1920 and after
The scenario I have described used to be called “making love.” Thanks to Edith Wharton’s novel, The Age of Innocence, we can now date the shift in meaning to what Wharton called the “French sense” of the expression (i.e., having sex) to just before 1920 in the USA. We might also associate this American shift of mores with the automobile, which F. Scott Fitzgerald likened, in his famous essay on the 1920s, to a bedroom on wheels.
"Making love" in the 19th century
It would be perfectly reasonable for us to imagine a conversation between two men in the 19th century in which one mentions fairly casually to the other, “I noticed you making love to my sister last night.” Modern readers are likely to misinterpret Algernon’s meaning when he tells Jack, in The Importance of Being Earnest, “The only way to behave to a woman is to make love to her, if she is pretty, and to someone else, if she is plain.” Not a very nice sentiment, but not quite as bad as it sounds. “To make love” in this context means to display the courtship rituals I have described above; it does not mean to copulate.
"The Rules" for making love
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) dates the earliest usage of “to court” meaning “to pay amorous attention or make love” as 1580. The OED dates the Old English verb “to woo” as 1050. Oddly, the OED describes “to woo” as “Now somewhat homely” but contradicts itself by adding “also poetic.” (Much as we might love the OED--and I do--we should remember that the original version was significantly compiled by a homicidal maniac confined to a lunatic asylum. See: The Professor and the Madman.) “To court” is also a problematic expression because of its elitism since it explicitly refers to what goes on in the royal court and more specifically what went on in the court of Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine where the rules of “courtly love” were first written. The rest of us peasants and plebeians were to get by in whatever way we could, clubbing women over the heads in Neanderthal fashion and dragging them off to our caves I suppose. I feel like the Grinch in saying so, but a lot of the behaviours which people today point to as evidence of “true love” are the remnants of the rules of “courtly love” codified in the 11th century under the supervision of Queen Eleanor and her daughter. Over the last 30 years, Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider have turned their version of The Rules of “courtly love” into a not-so-cottage industry.
Making love to a logophile
Oh yes, the answer to the question posed in the title of this post: a “logophile” is a lover of words, so the answer is almost redundant-- with words!